The hesitant, premature, indecisive, inconsistent, and uninformed foreign policy initiatives of President Barack Obama on the Assad regime are working towards undermining American credibility, power, prestige, and legitimacy in the international community and the Middle East. From the perspective of Russian and Chinese leaders, the Obama administration has projected a crucially weak geopolitical position. These undetermined and ambiguous foreign policy moves toward the Middle East and Syria are significantly contributing to emboldening the Shiite-Islamist coalition of Iranian clerics, Ayatollahs, Hezbollah, and Assad’s regime.
Firstly, President Obama has not yet articulated a concrete foreign policy plan for Syria as the conflict enters its third year, with the Islamists beginning to emerge as the more coordinated, and organized, battlefield winners. For the first 15 months of the Syrian uprising, the Obama administration preferred to act as a bystander, merely reacting as events unfolded in Syria while Russia, Iran, China, and Hezbollah led. Afterwards, when regional and international pressures to act began to pile up— and when American legitimacy and values were questioned—the Obama administration issued a red line for the use of chemical weapons. More precisely, Obama stated, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus… That would change my equation… We’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.”
A central principle of international affairs— directly linked to credibility, legitimacy, and the global image of a state— is warning, issuing a red line, declaring an ultimatum, and delivering definitive statements to the international community or other states. Geopolitical and geostrategic foreign policies of ruling nations generally indicate that a state should not warn other states of serious repercussions, unless it fully intends to implement its demanded policies if the drawn red line is crossed.
After President Barack Obama issued his warning, 13 reports on the use of chemical weapons came out from Israeli, French, and British intelligence. Due to the fact that the Obama administration did not have any particular foreign policy plan towards Syria from the beginning, the administration first began by dodging questions related to these reports. In addition, the administration’s argument for not following up on its own political warning focused on several notions: pointing out that they were not cognizant of who indeed used the chemical weapons, where the weapons were precisely utilized, and whether the rebels were in possession of the chemical weapons or the Assad regime. The Obama administration then changed positions, stating that chemical weapons where used in “varying degrees,” which would not qualify as crossing the red line. Apparently, the red line meant using chemical weapons in large amounts.
Nevertheless, after Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)—a credible international organization— presented a report on the use of chemical weapons, the Obama administration was further pushed to address the red line that was issued almost over a year ago.
While there were no specific foreign policy goals on the Syrian issue, President Obama warned that America would conduct limited military strikes. Geopolitically and geostrategically speaking, what was the purpose of such policy? There does not seem to have been any sort of national security plan that this military operation would have accomplished. This strike would not even have worked towards fundamentally altering the balance of power on the ground in Syria. Besides spending millions of dollars, the objectives of such military strikes are not at all clear. It would be difficult to refer to any definite geopolitical, national, and economic interests that these limited military strikes would bring about. Additionally, the overwhelming majority of UN member states and European countries have opposed it.
As the Obama administration saw the reactions from other ally states towards its ambiguous and “wait and see” foreign policy plan, President Obama attempted to defer the case to the Congress and avoid responsibility for two reasons. Primarily, this move was intended to throw blame on Congress in case of another catastrophic event occurring in Syria and in the region. Second, by deferring the case to Congress, President Obama could project the picture that he is not taking unilateral military action, but rather seeking congressional authorization as a fundamental part of the democratic system. As a result, President Obama will seek credit for himself in both these scenarios, being a political winner in any case.
Finally, the indeterminate and indecisive foreign policies of the Obama administration have fundamentally contributed to emboldening the Shiite coalition of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime. As President Obama keeps issuing red lines and changing his rhetoric, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad’s regime have received a clear and formidable message about the Obama administration’s weak position. This has also contributed to damaging America’s global image and diplomatic prestige.
These countries and non-state actors— supported by Moscow and Beijing— have been empowered to the extent that their lawmakers and leaders are explicitly undermining the U.S., threatening it and its ally Israel.
For example, according to Hussein Sheikholeslam, the director general of the Iranian parliament’s International Affairs bureau and a senior Iranian lawmaker, the United States would not dare attack Syria, but if it does, “the Zionist regime will be the first victim.” On Monday, Sheikholeslam was quoted on Iran’s state-run Fars News Agency saying: “No military attack will be waged against Syria… Yet, if such an incident takes place, which is impossible, the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria.” Contrastingly, Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the Republican Guards’ elite Basij paramilitary force, shrugged off any potential Western military response, stating that “[the Americans] are incapable of starting a new war in the region, because of their lacking economic capabilities and their lack of morale.”
More fundamentally, Iranian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi solidified Iran’s stance under Hassan Rowhani’s presidency by emphasizing that Iran is resolved and determined to defend Syria and Assad’s apparatuses. Araghchi stated in a news conference in Tehran: “We want to strongly warn against any military attack in Syria. There will definitely be perilous consequences for the region,” adding, “these complications and consequences will not be restricted to Syria. It will engulf the whole region.”
Considering international politics, the lack of a clear foreign policy agenda and issuing an ambiguous and vague red line, are more detrimental to national security and global geopolitical status than implementing many other, more real and physical, foreign policy gaffs.
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